SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE PROPOSED ABOLITION
OF THE EXECUTIVE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM
By Shyamon Jayasinghe,
It is reported that the United National Party wants to continue with
the Executive Presidential System (EPS). The reason is more than the
fact that it was in the first place brought into being by that party.
The UNP imagines it can repeat a JR style era of absolute power after
the next Presidential elections. On the other hand, the current president
wants to abolish it in order to replace it with a new system where she
could continue to be at the helm. A sheer crude exercise of will on
the part of JR saw the introduction of EPS while a similar exercise
of will wants to see its end. Such are the curious ironies of Lankan
JR installed the EPS along with another institution, namely Proportional
Representation (PR) also as an exercise of will. On a pure statistical
extrapolation he anticipated, and so did the UNP, that they could go
on forever like Tennysons brook with the dual reform. Even in
1956 when the UNP experienced a total electoral rout, the party would
have under a PR scheme retained a formidable number of seats leaving
only a narrow gap for the triumphant MEP. Take the recent parliamentary
elections. In every District except Mahiyangana the UNFPA had won on
a first-past-the post reckoning. However, the UNP managed to retain
a close margin with the winner. That is how PR works all over the world.
The basic principle underlying proportional representation elections
is that all political groups in society get represented in the legislature
in proportion to their strength in the electorate.
In order to achieve this representation, all PR systems have certain
basic characteristics: First, they all use multi-member electorates.
This is unlike the earlier first-past-the post system when Sri Lanka
had (barring a few exceptions) just MP for each electoral district,
namely the candidate with the highest number of votes.
The second characteristic of all PR systems is that they divide the
seats in these multi-member electoral districts according to the proportion
of votes received by the various parties or groups running candidates.
Thus if the candidates of a party win 40% of the vote in a 10 member
district, they receive four of the ten seats -- or 40% of the seats.
If another party wins 20% of the vote, they get two seats, and so on.
PR tends to erode the two-party system, bring up minority parties into
the fore, and thereby create instability in government. Horse dealings
with splinter parties become the order of the day. Witness how the CWC,
for instance revels playing the role of power broker although in demographic
terms it has just about two per cent of the total population.
The need for a strong centre in the person of an executive president
appears to be particularly relevant under such a PR system. One could
argue that if not for the office of the executive president, the UNFPA
would have collapsed long ago. This explains why the 1978 constitution
brought both systems together. Since the two-party line up in a PR is
not as strong as in the first-past-the post system strong executive
power being invested in the office of president would assist its operational
Hence, one cannot understand president CBKs disinterest in including
changes to the PR system in her attempted change over from the executive
president system. Perhaps she is focused only on the need for her continuance
in office. If given effect to by a referendum, as she is said to be
planning, this would simply add a new disastrous dimension to the stability
of government. Concomitantly, minority parties would enhance their power-broking
potential. In the incurable state of disunity among the major parties
that prevails in Lanka the majority community would be further disadvantaged.
I believe the EPS should go. It has concentrated too much power in
the centre. Along with other provisions like the immunity of the president,
etc little constitutional accountability of the president is provided
for by the constitution. For example, the auditor-general has pointed
out serious irregularities with regard to the management of the Presidents
Fund but can action be taken against the President? The former Westminster
system did possess adequate powers in the office of the prime minister
to run government in a more accountable way. Constitutional powers must
be so distributed on the basis of human imperfection and not on the
assumption of a perfect human being taking office as president. That
is why checks and balances are vital for good governance. In fact, political
analysts did observe that the role of the Prime Minister had been evolving
toward something like presidential status under the Westminster system.
At the same time, checks and balances that are fundamental for safeguarding
democratic freedoms continue to prevail under that system. For this
reason although the EPS System should go, such constitutional changes
must be accompanied simultaneously by changes to the electoral system
of PR. A healthy mixture of the PR and first-past-the post may be a